Making sense of digital identity: Symbols, substance and significance

There is an urgent need to research and examine digital IDs in Africa to understand their impact on our increasingly datafied society. Some digital IDs have, for example, been developed in an attempt to segregate people, while others have been established for national security purposes. Identification in Africa is complex and any evaluation of digital ID systems on the continent should be prefaced by clear, shared understandings of the terms and concepts used in the process. 

Identification schemes: Identity, Identification, ID or Legal ID?

African identity schemes have historically emerged in a non-digital/analogue domain where we witnessed an interplay between identity, identification and ID into what is referred to as an “identification system”. The process or transaction of proving unique identity is referred to as “identification” and at minimum, this process requires two actors. “ID” is an acronym for identity or in some cases identity document. It is a credential that exists to authenticate participation in a certain identification system.

Our identity, on the other hand, can be summed up as the relative social coordinates that distinguish one individual from another. Identity is thus an ongoing negotiation between actors in society. Significantly, non-digital identity is not fixed or absolute; it changes depending on the actors or the setting in which individuals find themselves. 

Research ICT Africa’s (RIA’s) Bio ID Evaluation Tool project is focused on understanding digitalised identity, referred to under the United Nations’ SDG 16.9 as “legal identity”. For legal identity within foundational ID systems as national identification systemscitizens interact with a national identity scheme or similar to access public services such as education, healthcare or protection. Here a citizen’s identity is authenticated when they present predetermined basic information, such as their names, time, and place of birth, to government officials. 

In most of the countries RIA’s partners are working in under the auspices of the Bio ID project, the identification process is supposed to begin at birth when a birth certificate (also known as proof of legal identity) is issued to the individual, as their unique identifier proving their existence; hence they have foundational national ID systems.

Besides foundational ID systems, other types of ID systems include sector-specific functional systems. For example, a healthcare passport to access health services, or a voting card to exercise electoral rights. There are also modern-day systems designed to facilitate transactions across multiple sectors, with banking systems across Africa often being the most advanced form of transactional system. 

When we add technology into the mix, the terminology gets a bit more complicated. The next section takes an in-depth look at digitalised identification in Africa. 

Digitalising identification

As African societies are increasingly connected and digitalised (albeit in unequal ways), governments are adopting technology to achieve socio-economic goals by converting paper-based legal identities into digital data, which can be processed by machine systems. This process of digitalising legal identity results in what is known as a “digital identity”. 

In this system, identification (the process of establishing information about an individual), authentication (the process of asserting an identity previously established during identification), and authorisation (the process of determining what actions may be performed or services accessed on the basis of the asserted and authenticated identity), are all performed digitally or via technology systems. 

In many African countries, the technology deployed is known as biometric technology – the system collects biometric data defined as unique measurements of people’s physical features such as a fingerprint or iris scans, but it can also be what has come to be described as behavioural biometrics, such as one’s voice. Although popularly used interchangeably, ‘digital identity’ is distinct from Digital ID. Whilst it is similar to the (non-digital) ID mentioned earlier, it is a digital artifact (i.e., a combination of characters, a unique number or barcode) used to authenticate one’s digital identity. It can be derived from biometric technology, but digital IDs can also use other forms of electronic information.

Certain commercial domains have also, for example, embraced the use of digital identity systems, including online and offline banking; identity in high-value transactions and contracts; facilitating and validating digital signatures; online identity in e-commerce; and employee identities and payroll numbers. In addition to expanding identification systems, governments have been able to track fraudulent activities or combine siloed ID systems. 

In 2020, for example, the Public Service Commission in Zimbabwe used a new biometric system to run an audit, which found thousands of ghost workers on the government payroll. Ghana has also been able to centralise and harmonise its no less than six siloed biometric databases, including the national ID card, passports, national health insurance data, drivers’ licenses and voter rolls, into the new Ghana card, promising to expand financial inclusion through strengthened credit scores. Digital IDs sometimes offer opportunities that will relieve many vulnerable communities of socio-economic trouble, however they also risks exacerbating existing inequalities and have introduced new forms of exclusion, as well as barriers to meaningful connectivity

What’s at stake? 

Because Africa has both the highest percentage of people without legal identities, and the lowest internet penetration rate, careful considerations should be given to ensuring that citizens actually benefit from digital ID systems. Groups such as the children of Gukurahundi in Zimbabwe, who have been unable to prove their identities because their parents were killed in post-independence massacres of opposition supporters, and are unable to access birth certificates, are prone to further social exclusion as ID systems migrate to digital-based systems. Social exclusion, which is driven by unequal power relations between different groups, institutions and/or individuals, can occur at cultural, economic, political and social levels. The exclusion results in denial of resources, rights as well as lack of access to essential services among other things, generally affecting quality of life. 

The biometric data collected by digital identification systems is often sensitive and personal and could lead to privacy violations and the misuse of data. In the digital ID context, digital dignity means that the human identity behind the digital ID has privacy and their data is protected. People have privacy when they are able to negotiate who they are (as identity is not fixed) and choose which system they want to interact with (identity is also determined by who you are not. See recent reporting of illegal political party registrations in Kenya). 

The right to privacy in a digital identification system is threatened when, for example, mission creep occurs. This refers to a system or technology that has been developed for one purpose but ends up being used for purposes it wasn’t originally intended for. As society is increasingly datafied, ID systems are also increasingly transformed into transactional systems operating between public and private sectors that have the capacity for 24-hour surveillance (used to profile citizens during police operations, for example). 

Data protection is also important for ensuring digital dignity, as it can directly address the inherent power imbalance between ‘data subjects’ and the institutions or people that collect data. Data protection regulates how data is used or processed and by whom, and it ensures citizens have rights over their data. 

Notwithstanding the risks highlighted above (and others which might arise from further analysis), RIA’s Bio ID project aims to highlight the fact that when digital IDs are supported by laws and legislation that prioritize humans and their digital dignity, it can lead to inclusive empowerment.

Read the introductory blog in this series, which talks about why RIA in partnership with the Center for Internet and Society, supported by the Omidyar Network, is undertaking research on digital ID. In the next installation of this series, we travel to India and hear from country partners there about what they found when they assessed the Aadhar system using the Evaluation Framework, what Africans can learn from the Indian example of Aadhar, and why the Framework is so useful for assessing digital IDs in uniquely African contexts with specific developmental challenges.